In recent years southern Africa has become recognized as one of the top vacation destinations in the world. Offering exotic and unspoiled landscapes, wildlife beyond your most vivid imaginations, and a plethora of cultural experiences, southern Africa is a highly sought after destination. As a relatively new region for American travelers, there is often a great deal of uncertainty about what to expect when visiting. One of the questions we receive most often from prospective travelers is "when is the best time of year to visit Africa? The most important thing to understand is that there is no bad time to visit southern Africa. Rather, when you go should depend on your preferences, and to some extent, on your budget. Ultimately the answer to this question revolves around the regional weather and what there is to do in each different season.
Southern Africa, which I am defining as South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho (both situated within South Africa), Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique, is a region situated in the southern hemisphere. Thus the seasons are opposite to what we experience in North America. The peak of summer is in February and the heart of winter is in August. While there are some exceptions, most of these countries receive their rainfall during their summer months, from approximately November to March. Do keep in mind, however, that during this rainy season it does not rain all day. Rather, there is usually a brief, though heavy, downpour in the late afternoon hours. During this time the weather is hot and humid. Winters, in contrast, are dry and temperatures are cooler. The two main exceptions are the Western Cape in South Africa, which has rain in the winter and has hot, dry summers, and Namibia, which is dry most of the year. It is also important to note that the Tropic of Capricorn passes through Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Mozambique, which means much of this region is sub-tropical and tropical. Thus winters are relatively warm and these climates rarely see frost or snow, except at higher altitudes such as in South Africa's Drakensberg Mountain Range.
So what are the advantages and disadvantages about each season? That depends on why you want to visit. One of the most popular reasons to visit Africa is to go on safari. If this is your main reason for traveling to southern Africa, then the winter months are the best time to go. During the winter months the weather is cooler, which means that animals tend to be more active throughout the day. It also means that the foliage and underbrush has dried up, thinned out, and is usually dead, making it easier to spot animals. But most importantly, because the winter months are dry, animals congregate at whatever water source is available. If you are on safari, this means you can simply drive to the water hole and watch the different animals as they interact. This can be very exciting! While there are certain advantages to going on safari during the winter months, game viewing can also be exceptional during other parts of the year. During warmer months, the landscape is lush and you have the opportunity to see many animals with their young.
If you are most interested in visiting Cape Town, which just won the award of 3rd best city in the world to visit for 2008 by Travel & Leisure, then you should go anytime from September to April. Do keep in mind that May to August are also great times to visit, especially since there are less tourists, but you will likely experience some cold, rainy days. With weather like this, Table Mountain, Robben Island, and other main attractions are sometimes closed. November to January is considered the peak season in Cape Town since the weather is fabulous and there are so many fun and exciting events taking place in the city. From late winter to early summer (August to October) this area, particularly in the surrounding Western Cape and the adjacent Northern Cape, experiences a stunning transformation as endless flowers bloom. Namaqualand, situated in the Northern Cape, is especially famous for its brilliant explosion of flowers on the semi-desert landscape. This is also a great time for whale watching. During this season Southern Right Whales migrate to the waters along the Cape Coast to mate and they can be seen in large numbers surprisingly close to the shore.
What about other popular attractions, such as Victoria Falls and the Okavango Delta? When is the best time to visit these places? During the rainy season at Victoria Falls, which is from March to May, the Falls are at full-volume. This is an awe-inspiring sight and the Falls generally continue at full volume well into July. Though this is the best time to visit Victoria Falls, the sheer volume of water that is falling creates so much spray that it can be hard to actually see everything and experience the full effect. Not to mention, you will get soaked! The dry season, from September to December, though considered to be low season, is still a great time to see the Falls because you can actually appreciate the size and scope of this natural wonder.
If you are interested in visiting the Okavango Delta, then high season coincides with the winter months. From July to October the Delta waters are higher, the animal concentration is greater as they migrate from other regions in search of water, and the weather is dry, which ensures that most roads are passable. From January to March, during the height of the rainy season, road conditions can be so bad that many lodges shut down. But those lodges that do stay open during this time provide a unique Delta experience, one with very few tourists and life blooming all around. Especially for those who love and appreciate nature, and prefer to do so without the crowds, this season is a great time to visit.
If you love visiting beaches then November to mid-March is the best time for you to visit South Africa. Cape Town in particular, and the surrounding areas especially along the Garden Route, has ideal beach weather during these hot, dry months. Because the sun is so hot during these months, early and late summer may be an even more ideal time for going to the beach, if you want to avoid getting sunburned. If you are interested in visiting Mozambique's incredible coastline, then the winter months, from April to September, are actually the ideal time to travel. The weather is hot, but not as hot as the summer months, the mosquitoes are at a minimum, and most roads are passable. During the summer months the mosquitoes, which carry malaria, can be unbearable and many roads are often washed out by the heavy rains. The only exception to this is the beautiful Bazaruto Archipelago, a string of tropical islands located just off the coast. Because the islands are accessible by airplane and helicopter directly from Johannesburg, and because there are very few mosquitoes on these islands at any time during the year, there is no bad time to visit. The islands are amazing all year.
Besides weather conditions, there are a few other variables that you should take into consideration when visiting this region. First, activities that are seasonal are subject to large crowds of tourists. For example, "peak" or "high" season for Victoria Falls is during the winter months, when the Falls are at full capacity. In Cape Town high season is during the warmest months, from October to April. In addition to throngs of tourists, the summer season is when many of the local residents go on vacations since schools are on holiday. This only makes the problem of overcrowding and availability even worse. Finally, you have to factor in budget issues. The prices of hotels, lodges, attractions, activities, and so on are always considerably more expensive during high seasons. So if you are looking for a bargain, high season is a bad choice. Travel deals are available only in low season. The very last factor to consider regarding budget is flights. Since flying to southern Africa can be expensive, this is important to take into account. Flights are pricey from June to September, which is summer travel season in the U.S., Europe, etc. Since most airlines are located in these regions, our seasons dictate prices. Flights are also expensive from November to January, which coincides with South Africa's summer months as well as the holiday season. Airline tickets are cheapest from February to May, and from mid-September to mid-November.
It is important to remember that while there are ideal times to experience different parts of southern Africa, there really is no bad time to visit. For example, I personally love Cape Town during its winter months and we have had many groups of travelers who have had a marvelous time in Cape Town in May, June, and July. Most vacations will have a blend of activities that take you into different regions, making it very difficult to experience everything at exactly the right time. Regardless of when you go, if you travel with Lark Tours you are sure to have the vacation of a lifetime. With our knowledge of each different region we can provide you with the best possible advice and help you craft the perfect journey.
For those interested in more detail, here is a brief analysis of the weather in each of the different countries:
South Africa is subtropical, except for the Western Cape, which has a Mediterranean climate. Because of the altitude of the interior and the Atlantic and Indian oceans on the east and west coasts, the climate is very moderate and relatively dry with lots of sunshine. Most of the country has summer rainfall; the Western Cape has rain in the winter. Even though game viewing is good throughout the year, the ideal time is from May to September. The Cape Region has a hot dry summer, which is ideal for all kinds of outdoor and beach related activities.
Namibia has a semi-desert terrain with hot days and cool nights. The northeast corner of Namibia is sub-tropical. Namibia averages 300 days of sunshine per year. The rainy season, depending on where you are, can range from October to February. Namibia is the most arid country south of the Sahara. It is very hot with summer temperatures of up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer. Though the summers are hot, Namibia is great vacation destination anytime during the year, offering exceptional wildlife viewing, particularly in Etosha, unique activities, and remarkable scenery.
Botswana has a semi-arid climate. It is hot and dry with a rainy season during the summer (November to April), which provides about 90% of the yearly rainfall. Temperatures can rise to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, with even higher temperatures in the Kalahari Desert. Game viewing is good during each season, though different regions are best at different times. May to October tends to be the busiest time for tourism in Botswana and as such there is usually limited lodge and camp availability. It is advisable to book well in advance. Botswana also offers spectacular bird and plant viewing, especially in the Okavango Delta. December to May is best for botanical excursions and November to March for avian lovers.
Zambia has a tropical climate and has distinctive dry and wet seasons. Temperatures in the dry season can reach 105 degrees Fahrenheit. During the wet season (December to April) it rains often but not for long periods of time. April to November is the best time for game viewing, and with only a few exceptions, this the only time safari lodges are open.
Zimbabwe is located in the tropics, but because of its elevation it maintains a temperate climate. The hot and dry season is from August to October, and the rainy season from November to May, depending on the different regions of the country. The best months to visit are April to September. Wildlife and game viewing are good throughout the year. The Victoria Falls are spectacular from April to July, after the rainy season has ended, although, as stated previously, the thick spray may obscure your view. At the end of the dry season, October to December, the water levels are low and one can see the magnificent rock formation of the Falls.
Mozambique has a tropical climate. The average temperature is 83 degrees Fahrenheit. The southern part of the country is drier and less tropical than the north, receiving about half as much rain. The hot summer months, which last from October to April, are rainy, humid, and hot. The months from April to September provide better traveling weather since the roads are passable. The main attraction in Mozambique is it's great coastline with awesome beaches, diving and fresh seafood.
This article was written by Lark Tours staff members. We reserve all rights to this article.